“They’re interested in developing four stores,” the mayor said in an interview after the meeting. “All of us said, ‘What about a fifth store?’ They hemmed and hawed, and it ultimately came down to — you have a choice. You can do five stores or you can do no stores.”
The Grey administration demanded that Walmart become the anchor tenant at Skyland, a redevelopment project east of the Anacostia River here in DC. That has sat vacant – like so many “redevelopment” projects – since roughly 2006.
Turns out the arm-twisting worked:
Wal-Mart will announce Wednesday that it intends to open six stores in the District, two more than it originally planned, and broaden its reach east of the Anacostia River, an area grappling with unemployment and a lack of retail amenities, city officials said…
It also will consummate a dogged effort by Mayor Vincent C. Gray and D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) to persuade Wal-Mart to open at Skyland Town Center, a long-neglected Southeast shopping center that has been mired in land disputes. Most recently, Gray (D) personally called Bill Simon, president and chief executive of Wal-Mart U.S., to ask what the city could do to get the company to expedite a store at Skyland.
The Washington Post has an interesting definition of “persuade.”
Anyway, this paragraph in the latest Post article caught my eye:
In May, Gray and Hoskins met with Wal-Mart representatives at the annual convention of the International Council of Shopping Centers in Las Vegas. Gray told the company he would like to see the chain open a store at Skyland, which D.C. officials envision as a mixed-use town center by developers the Rappaport Cos. and William C. Smith & Co. The city has already approved a $40 million subsidy and spent an additional $12.2 million settling eminent domain cases to gain control of the site. Some cases remain open, but Hoskins hopes to fully control Skyland by 2013.
It’s the same old story: government officials gleefully touting a “redevelopment” project – supported by plenty of tax dollars – in an impoverished area with high unemployment. But it’s worth taking a look at how we got to this point. Skyland has some interesting history. From the Washington Post in 2006:
A powerful group of affluent Hillcrest residents has succeeded in getting the city to declare eminent domain at Skyland-- a controversial move seen in no other commercial land deal in the District except the new baseball stadium. Skyland will be demolished, under the plan, and a higher-quality shopping center built in its place. Target may be its anchor. There could even be a white-tablecloth restaurant.
The Hillcrest activists say they are sick and tired of Skyland's downtrodden look, its lack of what they call quality products, its old discount stores and liquor stores and sidewalk vendors and assorted illegal or undesirable activity. The folks of Hillcrest say both they and the broader community, prosperous and poor alike, deserve far better…
So we have affluent residents using their political power to, well, get rid of something they just plain don’t like. Why? Because they think they have better plans. But they can’t steal it outright. So they need the government to take it for them. Sound familiar?
On the other side of the battle in 2006: property owners:
Franco and other Skyland merchants and landowners say they are operating viable businesses that have a large and loyal customer base. Sure, Skyland could use a renovation, they say, but that doesn't mean existing businesses should be forced out.
So they are battling the D.C. Council and the quasi-independent National Capital Revitalization Corp. (NCRC). In the D.C. Court of Appeals, they are arguing that the D.C. Council's declaration of eminent domain violated their property rights in favor of private political and financial interests -- not for the public good, as the U.S. Supreme Court says must be the basis for eminent domain. Other aspects of the land seizure are being contested in U.S. District Court and D.C. Superior Court….
But Skyland has been fully occupied for years. There have been no boarded-up shops. Business has been brisk.
Fast forward five years, to September 2011. The Washington City Journal gives us an update on these big plans:
In reality, Skyland Town Center is only breathtaking in its barrenness. A run-down Murry’s grocery store and CVS are pushed to the edges of a vast parking lot, which is divided further by an empty post office and liquor store. The shops along Alabama Avenue have seen much better days, and only half are open. Business trickles into a nail salon, beauty shop, two chicken places, dry cleaners, and a discount mart.
According to settled eminent domain case law, in order for a government to take private land and give it to another private owner, it must demonstrate that the land is blighted, and that the new owner’s plan would serve the public better. But as the District itself has argued, it never has to prove that the plan will actually work.
You don’t say.
Anyway, Ladies and gentlemen, your DC City Government! Which appears to have done the following:
- Took private property from poor people
- Used money taken from other people (tax dollars) to settle lawsuits from angry landowners who had their stuff stolen
- Demolished part of the development and let the rest decay for half a decade
- “Promised to deliver” the land stolen from poor people to a development corporation
- Threatened a private company – who wasn’t asking for incentives or tax breaks – into building a store on stolen land in a development financed with tax breaks
- Approved giving another $40 million in other people’s money to the development corporation and the private company
This would never happen if we could just get those damn Republicans out of office. Wait, what?
The DC government just forced a private company that was asking for nothing to accept land and money it stole from other people. Those Occupy kids are going to be livid about this. You know, once they stop blocking streets because we won’t pay for the loans they took out to study pupppetry.
I can’t imagine much that should inflame people of all political stripes, it should be this. The big evil government (Republicans!) steals private property (Libertarians!) from poor people (Democrats!) and gives federal tax dollars (Republicans!) to a development corporation and Walmart (Democrats!). The administration even managed to turn its back on the “community groups”:
“The mayor had really given the impression that there would be a community benefits agreement before the four initial stores moved forward,” said Mackenzie Baris, lead organizer for DC Jobs With Justice, which has coordinated with unions to protest Wal-Mart’s expansion. “And now there are additional stores . . . I don’t know how the communities around the existing store sites wouldn’t feel betrayed.”
And Mayor Grey now? The guy who was willing to tell Walmart to go to hell if they didn’t open a store where he wanted one had this to say:
"Frankly, I'm unabashedly an advocate for them having to come to this part of the city as well, because while I can't call it a food desert, I recognize that there is demand the exceeds supply," Gray said, adding that city officials estimate that at least $1 billion a year in retail sales escapes the District because of a lack of shopping opportunities.
Is there anybody who shouldn’t be pissed off by the way this went down?
Of course, very few will actually be. Because few people notice these things beyond, “Ooooo, there’s a shiny new Walmart!” But it’s worth keeping in mind how these things happen.